As Election Night wore on, one thing became clear: the election was a heck of a lot closer than the media and their pollsters had been predicting.
Some Democrats had flashbacks to 2016 as President Trump pulled away in Florida, and as Joe Biden’s initial lead in several red states proved to be illusory.
On the air and online, you could sense Democratic nervousness growing, a feeling of deja vu that the president might well confound the experts with another win. And with wishful thinking about Biden winning on Trump’s turf faded, it was once again all coming down to the Midwest.
The unfolding picture was so starkly different than the expectations set by the media, which largely dismissed the Trump rallies, enthusiasm and ground game, that it was nothing short of a major misfire.
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The nail-biting night began with different networks making different calls. At 7 eastern, MSNBC and CNN immediately gave Mike Pence’s state of Indiana for Trump, while Fox called Kentucky for Trump but awarded Virginia and Vermont to Biden.
There was early chatter about whether Biden’s margin in Miami-Dade, perhaps held down by Cuban-American voters, was enough to withstand the president’s strength in the rest of Florida. That was quickly echoed by the likes of NBC’s Chuck Todd and CNN’s John King as a major warning sign for Biden.
Fox didn’t call traditionally red Georgia for Biden, but Chris Wallace said that based on exit polls “you can certainly see a potential path to victory for Joe Biden in Georgia.”
Given the complications of early voting–some of which was quickly reported and some not–the contest seemed to freeze for long periods, with the pundits repeating the same intel based on limited returns. With their fancy walls and flashy graphics, they were basically killing time.
At the stroke of 8, Biden was declared the winner as expected in a spate of blue states. MSNBC awarded him New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, D.C. and of course Delaware. Fox threw in Maine for Biden. Trump edged ahead in Florida, but hadn’t quite locked up the must-win state.
MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, one of the all-left commentator lineup trying to assuage the liberal audience, said “you can see the hopes and dreams of our viewers falling down and liquor cabinets opening,” but the Biden camp never expected to win Florida. Why, she said, he hadn’t been there since Thursday.
There was indeed a shudder among Democrats over Biden underperforming in Miami’s Latino community. Fox’s Wallace agreed, though, that losing GOP-leaning Florida would be a “disappointment” but not a “killer” for Biden. But the larger trend among Hispanics was troubling for Democrats. (A Fox projection later made it official.)
Other than MSNBC handing Tennessee to the president, everything seemed stuck. CNN was the most cautious in making calls. Fox said Biden had taken Connecticut and Illinois, and Trump had won Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and West Virginia. Not one state had been flipped.
The pundits were surprised, based on half the vote, that Texas seemed competitive; there was similar chatter about North Carolina, where a Biden upset seemed more plausible. But those media-induced fantasies would soon vanish.
The bigger picture: Biden’s lead in some states was inflated because the heavily Democratic early vote had come in all at once while same-day ballots were still being counted, so the president could come from behind.
The single most valuable metric on all the networks was whether Biden was ahead or behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 percentage total in key regions.
In the old days, liberal metro areas reported early while viewers waited for downstate or rural returns to trickle in. In this pandemic election, the early vote in some states arrived with explosive force, while the anchors had to keep reminding us that many Trump voters who showed up that day had yet to be heard from.
In a possible harbinger of things to come, Fox declared shortly before 9:00 that Biden had an 89 percent chance of winning North Carolina–short of a projection but a definite thumb on the scale.
Precisely nothing was clarified at 9, other than Biden’s sure-thing win in New York. The states that would decide the election–Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona–too early to call. Florida was unofficially over, with the Biden team “waving the white flag,” Wallace said on Fox.
MSNBC called Colorado for Biden soon afterward, but that was also a Hillary state four years ago. The two candidates were holding serve; no one had broken through.
“It’s just not going to be an early landslide,” as some Democrats were hoping, said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “That was always a pipe dream.” But the media had been forecasting a much easier Biden win, and that was not materializing. Fox’s Chris Stirewalt said the massive early voting made many numbers “weird” and “screwy,” and projections risky.
You could hear a sense of justification creeping into the television analysis. Maybe some people “only paid attention to the most Trump-hating pundits,” said Tapper, whose network includes a number of them.
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With Trump initially ahead of Biden in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, “this is where Democrats get nervous,” King said.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wondered whether Wisconsin polling was any better this year than in 2016. Well, a Washington Post poll last week gave Biden a 17-point lead in that state.
There was no surprise at 11 when Biden swept the West Coast, with Fox and MSNBC awarding him California, Oregon and Washington. But that didn’t change the game.
The deflation on MSNBC’s set was palpable, especially as Lindsey Graham won and it appeared Republicans might keep control of the Senate. Joy Reid seemed rather stunned at the president’s prospects, saying Democrats “needed to know America rejects this man. That is not what we’re getting tonight.”
As much of America went to sleep, Donald Trump still had a real shot at reelection, which was decidedly contrary to the prevailing media narrative.